British artist Nina Mae Fowler (b.1981) initially trained in sculpture at Brighton, but is best known for her monochrome depictions of scenes from the silver screen. Using Golden Age Hollywood images to draw comparisons between - and attention to - pertinent contemporary issues, her work embodies newfound meaning in light of the #MeToo movement.
Represented by Cob Gallery, this show, If You Don’t Want My Peaches, You Better Stop Shaking The Tree, marks the first solo presentation of Fowler’s work since her esteemed National Portrait Gallery commission Luminary Drawings (2019).
All of the works included in this exhibition are newly created, but in keeping with Fowler’s traditional thematic interests.
The show’s tone is set by Fowler’s large-scale graphite collage I Didn’t Know Robert Rauschenberg Could Dance (2019). Both comforting and confrontational, this piece offers the viewer a tragic and complex scene, along with insight into the exhibition’s wider compositional method.
Cassie Beadle (Cob Gallery’s curator) has previously described Fowler’s longstanding fascination with Old Hollywood, and how this interest has led her to collect a huge archive of research images, from which she builds her compositions.
I Didn’t Know Robert Rauschenberg Could Dance is formed of several such images. Source material includes stills of Kim Novak and a street scene from The Man with the Golden Arm; released in 1955, the film features Frank Sinatra as a heroin addict.
In the background of the work, the appearance of a slumped figure (illustrated from the very real crime scene photos of Lenny Bruce - following his death by drug overdose) further nuances the already related themes of fame, tragedy and addiction.
In the foreground of the work appear two women: the first, axe in hand, stands beside the smashed facade of a box, from which water gushes. The second, trapped inside the damaged box, rises from a seated position as the water level drops.
The image seems absurd, completely divorced from reality, but this is not the case. The figures are drawn from an image, taken in 1949, of an altercation between two rival dancers in a New Orleans strip club.
Through Fowler’s seamless juxtaposition of documentary photograph and cinematic still, the viewer is presented with the parallels that exist between the mirage of dramatic construction and the real-life effects of working in such an industry.
Incorporation of a mirrored surface into the work further forces the viewer to consider the contemporary relevance of the polished silver screen’s propensity to conceal a Weinsteinian murkiness.
The next piece marks a more literal iteration of projection and mirroring. The best way to forget, until you find something you want to remember (2019) presents a charcoal rendering of Jeanne Eagles as she appeared in Jean de Limur’s film The Letter (1929) - a performance that earned Eagles a posthumous nomination for the Best Actress. Eagles’ life was cut short by addiction and alcohol abuse - two weeks after The Letter’s production closed, she died from “alcoholic psychosis".
Fowler’s portrait of Eagles is surrounded by a mirror. This framing device literalises the silver screen while disrupting the viewers ability to act as voyeur. Voyeurism, and the ability to look without being looked at, is an essential element in both cinema and visual art more broadly.
The mirror reflects our own gaze back at us, forcing us to consider our role in the demise of Hollywood figures. The act of projecting outwards highlights the external forces and intense scrutiny levelled at actors like Eagles.
Furthermore, the piece makes any suggestion of generational divide irrelevant. Past and present are made to occupy the same frame as Fowler’s work leads us to question whether our historic tendency towards fetishising Hollywood personality has ever improved.
Moving downstairs the work scales up. The front room is dominated by three drawings (Love I, 2019., Love II, 2019., Love III, 2019.) showing bare shoulders and the back of a female head. An ostensibly male hand holds the neck in each.
Upon entering the space, the youth and innocence of the feminine body is palpable; neither I nor Cassie Beadle could pin-point why this detail was so clear. The stills are drawn from Loves of a Blonde, a Czech New Wave film from the 1960s - one of the more contemporary references the artist uses.
Beadle described how the ambiguity of the plot and the stunning cinematography drew Fowler to the film. The images here are taken from the footage that appears immediately after a sexual encounter between a young girl and an army officer. To the viewer, it seems clear that the girl has been coerced into bed, believing their relationship to be more than a single night. For the officer, this encounter holds no emotional weight.
Fowler has interrupted the compositions with marks taken from her original tracing process, disrupting each image in the process. It’s curious; the preliminary sketch is usually worked over, hidden, by the final composition, whereas Fowler has chosen to overlay it.
An ulterior presence is noted. Underlying darkness is brought to the surface as the work explores the exploitative potential of a one-sided affectional performance, aligning the viewer with the army officer in the process.
Colour is rarely used within Fowler’s practice but appears in the diptych A fan of her own performance (2019). Both images are illustrated from the same press photograph of Marlene Dietrich. Captured through a car window, Fowler was drawn to the image as it is one of the only existing documents that shows Dietrich “off guard”.
Fowler’s decision to employ colour in this composition is particular poignant considering the actress’ relationship with colour in the film industry. After the dawn of colour, Dietrich retreated from the public eye believing the “magic” of cinema had disappeared. Largely bedridden for the rest of her life, it is rumoured that during her final years she would make visitors sit and listen to recordings of the applause she had received earlier in her career.
The work’s title directly responds to this notion. Ideas of performance became intrinsically weaved throughout every aspect of Dietrich’s life, continuing as she died and accompanying her image long after.
The final room is darkly lit with two small spot-lit depictions of Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr’s story is another tale of tragic demise.
Both an actress and a distinguished scientist (she is credited with the invention of both Bluetooth and WIFI), in her prime she was considered one of the most beautiful women alive.
She spent much of her later life chasing this title by undergoing a series of cosmetic surgical procedures. She was so used to going under the knife that she would instruct the surgeons on how best to “do her up”.
The images here are framed by the dimensions of a wide screen cinema and are taken from home videos captured by Lamarr’s son towards the end of her life. The title There she is (a quote her son repeats while he films) embodies the notions of presence and appearance that the work explores.
These two pieces hang opposite Fowler’s largest coloured work to date. I could go on, (2019) sees Fowler’s sculptural training combined with her drawing practice. The work is an almost life-sized portrait of Judy Garland, playing the role of an alcoholic cabaret singer with a dwindling career.
Garland was involved in, and controlled by, the film industry from a very young age. Directed by Hollywood in its typical style for the majority of her life, she is yet another example of the tragic consequences of fame. Garland fell victim to drug and alcohol dependencies as her acclaim subsided - Fowler’s work highlights the irony in such a successful performance.
This piece seems an appropriate end to a thoughtful and powerful show. It is the curtain call of the film, Garland’s career and If You Don’t Want My Peaches, You Better Stop Shaking The Tree.